Appeared in Winter 1996, Vol. XXII, No. 4 Download PDF here

Fritz Wilhelmsen and Bernard Lonergan first met in a hotel bar at an American Catholic Philosophical Association convention forty-some years ago. Lonergan was already glued to a barstool when Fritz came in and headed for a seat several stools away. The brash young author of Man ‘s Knowledge of Reality had recognized the author of Insight but didn’t think that the converse held. He sat down quietly, not desiring an “encounter.” But after a few minutes Lonergan swiveled around and fixed eyes on him. “You don’t like my stuff, do you?”

It was one of the best understatements of the Thomistic revival. In Man ‘s Knowledge, Wilhelmsen had attacked the conceptualist theory of the judgment, and that was Suarez’s theory,and Lonergan took it for granted. But Wilhelmsen had not attacked Lonergan by name–not in those days-and was not to do so until years later (1972) when he was doing a stint in Washington and living in my apartment. There he banged out “The Priority of Judgment over Question: Reflections on Transcendental Thomism” for the International Philosophical Quarterly, and I did the footnotes.

So how did Lonergan know, on a barstool twenty years earlier, that the gulf betweeen the two men was profound? Could a quibble over the judgment entail antithetical metaphysics? I will explain the matter as Fritz explained it to me, and I will do so as my tribute to him. For this “quibble” will serve to highlight what is supreme and “for the ages” in Fritz Wilhelmsen’s output as a philosopher.

What is conceptualizable is always some intelligibility within the line of essence. If judgment is the linking (or separating) of two concepts, judgment does not attain existence. Itplays with blocks of essence. It puts ideas together, and then it remains for some further reflection to ask whether the ideas synthesized “correspond” to the real or have “truth.” Put all the weight of truth on that second and further reflection, and you have opened a space as wide as a boulevard for Hume’s skepticism, for German idealism, and for Husserl’s epoche. You and your judgment are on one side, and real existence is on the other, with Hume/Kant/Husserl and the whole zoo of modernity strutting on parade along the boulevard in between. To get across,you will need to invent a transcendental argument. In the end, it will have to say that the inner intelligibility synthesized in your concepts demands, or posits, or entails a real existence on the other side. Like Descartes, you will have to try to squeeze existence out of a clear and distinct idea. In short, begin with the judgment as a linking of concepts, and you are stuck in the glue of modernity. Transcendental Thomism is Lonergan stuck on fly paper.

Fritz knew that existence is attained in the judgment, because the subject of judgment is already the real, referentially intended. No transcendental argument is needed to retrieve it, and none would succeed, because existence in exercized act cannot be teased out of essence or existence in signified act. (Read question 2, article 1, in the First Part of the Summa, and see how Aquinas dispatches Anselm. If you don’t understand it, read Cajetan’s commentary. If you don’t understand that, read Wilhelmsen’sThe Paradoxical Structure of Existence.)

Since existence is attained in the judgment, man’s knowledge is not limited to systems of necessary (conceptual) hookups. Man’s knowledge attains the existent, and hence the contingent, and hence cries out for both the Cause of the contingent and the sense of events. Man’s knowledge attains the Cause in a proof, but the sense of the output of contingent esse’s Cause is providence, and the ends of providence are revealed information in Christ Jesus. Thus the question of history is planted at the heart of knowledge, and the answer of the Catholic Church is planted with the question. Without that question and that answer, there is no knowledge of our common meaning in history.

Lonergan knew that between him and Wilhelmsen was the whole, wide boulevard of modernity, and Fritz knew that Lonergan could find no meaning but what was on parade behind Descartes/Hume/Kant and the rest. Lonergan was in the parade, and so of course he went the route of the parade, from Transcendentalism to historicism to dissent over Humanae vitae-from Catholic liberalism, to relativistic liberalism, to erotic liberalism.

Fritz Wilhelmsen was never in that parade. Others will memorialize in song and story the sides of Fritz that are beyond my capacity-Fritz the second Belloc, Fritz the Carlist, Fritz the intimate of Bozell and Kendall, Fritz the larger-than-life adventurer, drinker, smoker, and sailor. I knew him slightly in these dimensions, but I was too narrow-chested to take him in. Or to change the figure, Fritz was like a legendary actor, who could play any male part–the romantic lead, the tough guy, the playboy, the eccentric scholar, the old curmudgeon-and I wanted to be his understudy, but I could do so only in a few types of roles.